Why Bad Students Make the Best Teachers
A couple days ago, someone asked what led me to a career in education and workforce development. The short answer? Years of bad grades, failed classes, and jobs I hated.
You see, school didn’t come naturally to me. The more I tried to be a traditional student and fit in with people who would call me their friend, the more uncomfortable I became. I made a lot of mistakes doing what I thought was making my life easier.
i = bad student
It began in elementary school. When I opened a book, it was hard to focus on the words. And sometimes, the words would jump around. Before it made sense, I had to read and reread the same passage over and over again. Reading out loud was the worst—I missed words or said words that weren’t even on the page. It felt like my brain was in one universe and my mouth was in another. Even in high school, I would make excuses: I don’t have my book; I’m losing my voice; I can’t read.
P1: Learning at school is difficult for me
By the time I finally understood something, I had sat with the concept so long and looked at it from so many angles, I began to ask questions: Why do we do it this way? What if x happens? Wouldn’t it be easier if…? Has anyone ever thought about doing it like this…?
P2: I am disruptive
Most educators (and later, managers) saw my questions as an unwelcomed challenge to disrupt what they knew was true.
After all, they had the degrees, certificates, and experience.
After all, someone had given them power and put them in charge for a reason.
The answers to my questions were not in the books or part of the curriculum. We have a way of doing things—it works—and because it works, it doesn’t need to be fixed. Another said: This is how we do things. If you don’t like it, there are going to be A LOT of things you won’t like in the real world.
As I grew older, teachers’ fuses grew shorter. They were more vocal; so was I. It became apparent they saw me as a bad student. And then, I started thinking of myself as a bad student, too. So, I quit.
When it came time for questions, I didn’t raise my hand. I was too anxious. I was tired of being misunderstood and talked down to in front of my peers.
Eventually, I quit school altogether.
C: i = bad student
Teachers: Former Bad Student > Former Good Student
There were some teachers—later I found out they were also labeled “bad students”—who responded positively to my inquisitive nature. The good teachers answered every question I had; the great ones led me to resources—books, websites, and experts—so I could research at my own pace.
Most of the great teachers I know have similar stories to mine, because as students, we didn’t “get it” the first time around. When you struggle to learn something—I mean, really struggle—it sticks when you finally learn it. And since you have been through the struggle, down the alleyways that lead to dead ends, you are able to recognize when others are going through the same difficulties.
P1: Bad students learn how to struggle
I’m not dismissing the hard work “A” students put in. They add value to our communities in many ways—it takes all kinds of people to make the world spin. What I’m saying is, good students never experienced the same trials some of us normal or slow students did. When a student repeatedly asks questions or just doesn’t “get it,” teachers for whom learning came easily are more likely to throw their arms in the air with frustration and say: Why is this so hard for you? Why don’t you try a little harder? Why don't you LISTEN?
P2: Struggle leads to empathy
When a student doesn’t understand something and they’re too embarrassed to ask, or when they have a question that challenges the status quo, only someone who has been there before will sit with them and work through the problem. Only someone who has taken the wrong turn too many times can be a guide for someone who looks lost. Only someone who had felt like the dumbest person in the room will know how to reframe the material so it makes sense from a new perspective.
C: Bad students who become teachers reach more students
Most “Bad Students” Give Up. I Don’t Blame Them. I Did.
Too often, nontraditional students (slow learners, misfits, class clowns, wallflowers, …) are ignored, and when they begin to feel it from the teacher or their peers (and they do), they want to break away and isolate themselves to put distance between them and the people who make them feel less than human. The slow learners become overwhelmed, the misfits become defensive, the class clowns become more disruptive, and the wallflowers become more shy or anxious.
No matter how different our individual stories are, we want to feel accepted as we are. When a student is ignored or doesn’t feel validated, it stands in the way of the learning process. It stands in the way of how they think of themselves in the context of society. When a creative, passionate student begins thinking they are a bad student, they begin doubting themselves. They begin doubting their dreams. (Yes, we have dreams. Yes, even the most disruptive student cares about something).
The reality is, there are no bad students… everyone has the potential to thrive in the right environment.
AND a “bad student” can become a good teacher when they share how they have learned to compensate for their problem areas. Eventually, students who learn how to overcome whatever is holding them back can become “A” students, but it’s the struggle that got us there—the story of it all—that is valuable and should be shared with others.
That story goes: You are necessary. You are valuable. You are beautiful. No matter what, you can do great things.
Teachers Have the Power to Inspire or Cripple (and so do you)
The argument I hear far too often from administrators, parents, and even, some teachers goes like this: The reason why teachers don’t spend more time with those students (students who see the world differently) is because they don’t have time. Teachers don’t get paid enough to spend more time with a student who asks too many questions.
While I agree that teachers should be paid more—a lot more—their engagement with students who need more help isn’t going to change if their salary increases; compassion for your students—all your students—is a personal value. If this isn’t one of the instructor’s values (it may not even be on their radar: maybe they don’t know what it’s like to feel like an outcast, feel stupid, feel like the only one in the room who doesn’t understand) an extra $50,000 a year isn’t going to change a thing. Not to mention, the argument dismisses the efforts of the teachers who do make time for ALL their students. Blaming funding is a bucket problem, not a root-cause solution.
And that’s exactly why I do what I do.
I am an educator first before I am a writer. The writing I do is a symptom of helping others gain access to the tools they need to be successful. It’s at the root of what I do. It’s the WHY behind everything I do.
Too many students are ignored or labeled as “troubled” because they don’t fit the cookie-cutter definition of a good student. There is only so much isolation a student can feel before they give up. Under the right amount of stress, strong and creative and beautiful students eventually give up. Like I gave up. Like my best “misfit” friends who gave up, and some of them, who gave up completely.
What if our teachers… mentors… bosses… began empowering us instead of disarming us?
Teachers and mentors and role models wield a lot of power. Too often, this power is used to silence voices that don’t fit the mold of what a traditional student looks like. We, as a society, a culture, a People, we need a variety of unique voices, ones that aren’t always heard in the classroom. Will you share your story with us? Will you be a voice, a mentor, a teacher? Even if you haven’t been in a classroom in a decade or more, your story might be exactly what someone needs to hear.
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @andrewjwilt